Lehigh Days - Memories of a Railroad Lineman 1922-1932
by JOHN H. BUCHHOLZ 1903-1994
Reprinted from "Crown Jewels of the Wire", February 1999, page 21
At age 90, my late uncle wrote his life's memories (over 32,000 words) on a
In his manuscript, he recounts his days during the 1920's and 1930's as a young lineman for the Lehigh Valley Railroad in New York and
Pennsylvania, and Pacific Bell in California.
I hope that some of the memories
and accompanying photos will be of interest for the readers of Crown Jewels of
... John A. Buchholz
JOHN HINKLE, SIGNAL MAINTAINER & FRIEND
In 1922, while he was working as assistant signal maintainer, Pop (my father)
was called to work in the signal gang. He arranged with Dewey Rice, the division
superintendent of signals, to hire me for the job he was vacating. Thus I became
acquainted with John Hinkle, who was the signal maintainer for the eighteen
miles of track between Geneva and Manchester. His job, along with his assistant,
was to keep all the signals operating properly.
That meant, too, that even when
he was off duty, he was subject to call. Many times in the middle of winter,
when the relays that operated the signals became covered with frost, he had to
get on his motor car and get to and repair the trouble. While working with
Hinkle, I was called out twice. I'll say it was a hell of a cold trip to get on
an open car in the middle of winter and ride anywhere from five to eighteen
Once a month, John and I had to walk the track from Geneva to Manchester
to renew bond wires that had become rusted and broken off. They were the wires
that carried the electricity through the rail joints.
When I got my first
railroad check, John insisted that I start a savings account. So every payday at noon, we would get on the trolley that went from the Lehigh station to the
other end of Geneva and make our deposits in our savings accounts.
John was a
very avid union man. At that time, the employees in the signal department
belonged to a so-called company union, and worked under its rules. But when the
company planned to lay new steel on holidays and pay only straight time, Hinkle
helped start a union, The Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, that had a meeting
hall in Sayre, PA. Once a month, on a Sunday, John insisted that I go to Sayre
with him to attend the union meeting, and that is how I became acquainted with
John was an elder in the German Evangelical Church, on North Main Street
in Geneva. He sang in the choir with a voice that could be heard three houses
away, and once he enticed me to sing a duet with him, but I doubt that I was
You may wonder why I write so much about John Hinkle. I can only say
that he was quite a man: very strong physically, very intelligent, and he played
a very big part in my life.
When I first went to work on the Lehigh Valley Railroad out of Geneva, NY, in
the early twenties, I was always interested in watching section hands doing
their job. In those days, extra care was given to keep the tracks looking neat
At every station, large or small, with few exceptions, there was a
section foreman and a gang of workers. The size of the gang depended on the
distance between stations. For instance, working west out of Geneva, there were
three section gangs, the largest consisting of about twenty to twenty-five
Back in those days, all track maintenance work was accomplished
by bull strength. Tracks were kept aligned by gangs with long bars, shifting the
rails either way to keep them in a near-perfect straight line to eliminate sway
in passing trains.
Ties were kept tamped tightly to the rails by driving the
ballast under the ties. Track-walkers walked their sections and carried wrenches
to tighten the joints between rails.
Once a year, just before the division
superintendent made his annual track inspection, even the ballast alongside the
track was kept neatly in rows by placing it piece-by-piece, using a long board
as a guide. Also, the cinder banks along the tracks were kept free of weeds.
Today, nearly all the bull work is done by machines. Old ties are removed, new
ties installed, ballast sifted to remove dirt, new rails installed where needed,
and the roadbed tamped up to a near-perfect flat level.
RAILROAD SIGNAL OPERATION
Until about 1926, railroad signals were powered by batteries in a battery
well. In the well, there were six or eight glass jars containing water, a crow's
foot made of copper strips, and blue vitriol. The reaction in the water between
the vitriol and the copper plates produced an electric current to operate the
relays, located in a relay box at each signal. This system was operated until
about 1926, when a 400-volt charging line was run all along the line.
THE BELL CROSSING: 1923
The bell at the crossing at Clifton Springs was operated by a set of
batteries in a battery well, and one day John Hinkle was down in the well
working. The bells weren't operating, so I stood outside, flagging at the
The local pickup train had done some shifting of cars at Clifton
Station, and when I saw it bowling down the track toward us at a good rate of
speed, I got my flag ready and looked down the road. A car was approaching, so I
got out in the middle of the road and started waving the flag.
As the big #444
engine got closer and closer, it became evident that the car wasn't going to
stop, even though I was waving the flag as hard as I could. But at the last
moment the driver saw me. I jumped out of the way as he swerved off to the right
and drove parallel to the tracks as the train thundered by.
When he got back to
the road I said, "What were you trying to do? Kill yourself?" He was a
farmer, and with a sheepish look on his face, he said, "I was thinking
about my cabbage crop."
THE CAT'S WHISKER RADIO; 1923
About the time the cat's whisker (a thin wire used for tuning stations) radio
became popular, I was called to go down to Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania to work in
place of Carl Nelson, the signal maintainer, who was down with pneumonia.
I stayed at Carl's boarding house and had use of the radio, which was the first
one I had ever seen. The first night I used the radio, I put the headset on and
started listening to pipe organ music at about nine o'clock.
I went to sleep,
and when I woke up at three in the morning and took off the headset, my ears
were plastered against my head.
THE SIGNAL GANG: 1923
I was transferred to the signal gang in 1923, and after a few weeks it became
my job to climb the poles and renew lines that ran to the relay boxes. Every
connection had to be soldered and covered with electrical tape to prevent short
circuits in the signal operation.
At every signal, the pole was double-armed, which made it possible to break
the lines running from signal to signal and run them to the relays in the relay
box. There, three different relays controlled the three positions of the
signals; whether it was to be a 45-degree arm on the signal, or a 90-degree arm
It is not generally known that there is a constant current running
through the rail. That current, in milliamps, makes it possible for the signal
Let it be said first that our camp cars were not Pullman diners and sleepers.
At best, they were somewhat crude. The sleeper car contained twelve double
bunks. The railroad furnished the "linens," if they can be called
linens, but I will say that we had freshly laundered sheets and blankets weekly.
There was a small washroom at one end of the car, and the dining car had a
kitchen, washroom and a long dining table. Water was drawn from taps at every
station, and each station had an outside three-holer. Our washroom had an
eight-foot trough lined with metal, and drained directly onto the ground.
SWEENEY BREWSTER: WEATHERLY, CA. 1923
While our camp cars were stationed at Weatherly, Pennsylvania, we were in the
process of electrifying the switching process at Black Junction, about two miles
We had a fairly good quartet in the gang, consisting of Cork Whitaker,
Stanley Carter, Oliver Goodwin and myself. We used to go across the creek to
Hinkle's Cafe in the evenings, and we'd get requests for songs that were known
there. Once we started singing, we never had to buy drinks.
A short time after
we got to Weatherly, Sweeney Brewster, a young lad, I would guess about
nineteen, came to work with us. For quite a while, we wouldn't let him accompany
us to Hinkle's, but one night he was so insistent that we told him he could come
When the place closed at one o'clock, we went back to the cars. It was a
beautiful moonlit night, so we sat on a pile of lumber outside the cars and did
a little more singing. A short time later, Brewster told us he had to relieve himself, and started down the track to the
outhouse, about three hundred feet away. After he had been gone about fifteen
minutes, we wondered what had happened to him. Cork went down the track to
check, and suddenly we heard a loud burst of laughter.
We all went to see what
had happened, and there stood Sweeney, stark naked. He told us that while
running down the track he had tripped over a derailing handle and had a major
Two days later, as I left to get a pair of dress trousers pressed at a
shop owned by a deaf-mute, Sweeney asked me to take his to be pressed also. The
following night as I was leaving to pick up my trousers, Sweeney asked me to get
his, too. When the deaf-mute carne out with Sweeney's pants, he was holding them
up with one hand and pinching his nose with the other. And there was no way I
could convince him they weren't mine.
THE SQUARE DANCE: 1924
Jake and Pete (I never did learn their real names) DeMell were pretty sisters
who lived outside of Hall, and who had a gas station about two miles south of
Geneva. I didn't know how to square dance, and really surprised myself one
foolish day by asking Jake to go to one with me.
About nine that night, we
stopped in Little Italy, got a pint of bathtub gin, and proceeded to the dance,
being held in a large white house on the Lyons Road. Favors were passed out as
we entered, and I ended up with a large green crepe-paper hat.
To this day, I swear I don't know how I got involved in a square dance, but I remember drinking
gin and jumping (I can't call it dancing) well into the night.
When I finally
got back to Uncle Art's house at three or four in the morning, I drove right
across his lawn, up to the front porch, went in the house, and went to bed.
Uncle Art carne home for lunch the next day, I was still in bed and the
car was still parked on the lawn by the front steps. But he never dressed me
down or criticized me for what I had done. He merely said, "Don't you think
it's about time to get up?"
When I finally got up and looked in the mirror,
a ghoul with green streaks all over his face looked back at me.